Thursday, 24 March 2011

'Come around, make it soon. So alone.' - Syd Barrett

It’s interesting how, while some artists will go to great lengths to build up a myth, others have one built for them. Syd Barrett is probably most well known for his mental disintegration, culminating in him dying at the age of 60 in 2006 as a recluse in his hometown of Cambridge. Not only had he not spoken to the press for nearly 40 years, he’d hardly spoken to anyone at all.

The tales about Barrett’s antics are as tall as they are numerous, but behind the mystique and absurdity was an almost unrivalled talent. Syd Barrett was one of Britain’s songwriting greats.
A lyricist and musician way ahead of his time, Barrett joined the nascent Pink Floyd (then called ‘The Tea Set’) sometime in 1965, and once they got their let’s-do-loads-of-American-RnB-covers stage out of the way (as seemed to be the custom for just about every fledgling British band of the time), he guided and steered them into a visionary outfit, forging ahead in psychedelia and improvisational performance with his innovative, virtuoso guitar playing and inspiration.

Unfortunately, the beginning was also the end for Barrett, as with each passing song written and each live performance completed, he became more and more odd and unpredictable before leaving the band altogether in 1968. At that point, he’d contributed around 90% of the band’s songs (including two of the greatest singles of all time: the fantastical, voyeuristic Arnold Layne and the timeless See Emily Play), but had stopped performing with them live; he would amble across the stage, guitar slung aimlessly around his neck and stare into space.

It is at this point it becomes almost impossible to separate the myth from the reality. One thing we do know for sure is that Barrett did take more mind-altering drugs than was healthy. But that’s only part of the story. He was a fragile character from the very start. In fact, Dave Gilmour remarked that Barrett’s nervous breakdown would have ‘probably happened anyway’. His propensity for LSD exacerbated the problem rather than seeding it.

It is, however, unfortunate that his breakdown stole the limelight over his ability as a songwriter. Everyone knows the stories:

Syd’s mate locked him in a cupboard for three days straight while out of his mind on LSD, Syd locked his girlfriend in a room and only fed her biscuits under the door, again, while high on acid. Syd crushed Mandrax into his Brylcreem and let the stage lights melt it all down his face.

All three stories obviously involving heavy drug use, but all three stories probably untrue.

There are enough true stories to go on if you’re that way inclined. For example, he probably did walk all the way from London to Cambridge when he’d had enough of England’s capital never to return, he did walk out on recording sessions halfway through with no explanation (in fact, it got to the point that when the rest of the musicians saw him turn left out of the studio they knew it meant he’d gone for a cup of tea and would probably be back. If he turned right, he’d gone and that would be that), and he did turn up to a Floyd recording session years after he’d left the band, almost completely mute, brushing his teeth while holding the toothbrush still and jumping up and down to clean them. He’d also shaved all his body hair off by that point and was much heavier than his slender figure of days of yore to the point where no-one recognised him.
He had gone from this to this.

Again, there are enough true stories about Barrett to keep those of that persuasion firmly entranced, so the other apocrypha shouldn’t get in the way. But the important thing to remember is that Barrett’s songs are by far the most effective way of getting inside his character and finding out what he thought, did and felt. From the very first songs he contributed to Floyd to his final, disjointed solo work, the songwriting is a journey into his soul.
The song I’ve chosen to accompany this entry is Here I Go, the centrepiece of Barrett’s first solo record The Madcap Laughs (Harvest/EMI). By this stage, Barrett had progressed from his rangey, psychedelic wig-outs to a more rounded, lyric-led style and to the uninitiated, it’s a classic slice of 60s British pop; a young man, rejected by a girl, woos her sister instead. But it’s so much more than that. The tempo speeds up and slows down seemingly at random, the imagery it conjures up is at the same time surreal yet also vintage 1960s England. It’s classic Barrett. You want to know the time signature? Just try to keep up. You want to know what I’m REALLY talking about? Listen a hundred times, you’ll get there eventually.
He had a tremendous ability for projecting exactly what he was feeling onto record and sharing it with the listener. In fact, it’s hard to think of a British songwriter that could execute that particular facet of songwriting more effectively. David Bowie is the obvious retort to that claim, yet he is, by his own admission, heavily indebted to Barrett.

Everyone with a passing interest in music knows a story about Syd Barrett. Indeed, he was surely the most extraordinary eccentric British popular music has ever produced. But how many people have taken the time to listen to his work? Because in my mind, there is no better way to appreciate his remarkable talent than by putting on some headphones and actually listening to what he had to say.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff Luke - love "Here I Go" - My personal fave is "Octopus"